Sunday 31 January 2016

Farewell, Terry

How on earth did this lovely, quietly mumbling man attract an audience of millions?  

No teasing.  Little ‘sense of the day’.  No callers.  No stunts.  No giggling sidekick.  Not slick. No crazy competitions.  No showbiz.  Few weather forecasts.  Incestuous talk about his radio team.  Interminable ramblings about the mundane.

But, like most great breakfast shows, he broke the rules and won.  The phrase ‘radio legend’ was made for Terry Wogan. 

Despite his audience of millions, Terry enjoyed true intimacy with the listener.  Every listener felt he knew them  - and that he understood them.  From the shawled-pensioner in an icy semi to the savvy student from a magnolia flat; each listener heard a different show in their own head.  Although he likely earned a touch more than either of them, they felt this seemingly self-effacing man was still ‘one of us’. Like Blackburn, this man grew not to take himself too seriously, with some success.

The Wogan vocabulary was his weapon.  With enviable skill, he carved each sentence; turning a mundane anecdote from a black and white photo to a colour film with a beautiful array of words, delivered with vocal warmth through an increasingly fruity voice.  

Tales founded on fact  would be emebellished with a Wogan flight of fancy.  A few words from a 'listener' on Basildon Bond turned to gold in the hands of the master.

His artful pauses too.  Terry possibly made as much money in his career from saying nothing as saying something.

A little like Bernie Taupin, his rich career began when a chance newspaper recruitment ad rescued him from the banking world.  Presumably charming the interviewers, he was signed up to RTE.  As the early recordings of Moyles suggest too, distinctive  broadcasters do not begin their careers with their trademark styles; but you can hear just a hint of the endearing future Tel on this early clip from the Emerald Isle.

When work began to dry up in Ireland in 1966, Terry rattled out a quick missive on the Remington to the BBC.  Auntie responded with the offer of a few programmes ‘down the line’ for the Light Programme, before a fledgling Radio 1  beckoned.  In the days when programmes had titles, he hosted the wonderful ‘Late Night Extra’.  After some relief presentation and holding the JY fort, afternoons became his home, simulcast by BBC Radio 1 and 2.

Terry ascended the Radio 2 breakfast throne in the Decimal days of 1972, entertaining the Nation with his ramblings, interrupted only by JAM jingles and pan-pipe music.

He signed off from Radio 2 in 1984 to dedicate more time to his TV career, wearing those brown suits we all wore back then.  Whilst he did TV possibly as well as most radio folk, he was still at his best when, as in the Eurovision, we couldn’t see him.  Like many in the radio fraternity, you got the feeling he did his best work when he felt no-one was really watching.

Come January 1993, he returned home.  Terry was one of very few presenters ever to host two long spells on a significant breakfast show on the same station.  By now, he’d become the eponymous hero of ‘Wake Up to Wogan'; and he'd truly found his act.  That's the stage at which a performer truly matures; and the audience give them permission to behave unthinkably on-air.  One got the feeling that detailed show prep was not high on his list of priorities, but it mattered little. A listener's broadcaster, not a radio anorak's.

As a professional, he carried himself through his career with skill.  Being sufficiently true to himself when speaking about the Corporation's idiosyncrasies, but stopping short of going too far.  His humour and stature softening comments on music policy, radio, or BBC antics which might have sounded unwise from others.

His handing the Radio 2 breakfast baton to Chris Evans at the end of 2009 was text book.  One could detect the signs of two performers respecting each other’s very different talents.  I suspect it was well-choreographed too; but one got the distinct feeling that he agreed with this unlikely succession plan.  If he did, he was right.  Here he was, fondly letting his mischievous radio ‘son’ have a play now, probably shaking his head lovingly at the Evans antics like a tolerant father.

If proof were needed of his talents, watch his farewell speech below. Radio is rarely perfect, and that’s why we love it.  But this is.  Truly perfect delivery. As mentioned in my book, the pace was 165 words per minute, a little faster than his normal speed, but slower than most broadcasters. Terry delivered every valedictory word from the heart, as if to a close friend sat together in the living room. In truth, Tel was surrounded by producers and the nosey, gazing at a typed script, and read every word.  Immaculately.  Note how he gazed into the eyes of his listener throughout, never those milling around; possibly the secret of his art in those 28 successful years on earlies. 

Wogan returned for what his to be his final broadcasting home in 2010 for Weekend Wogan on Radio 2. Whilst a live audience situation was arguably not the best home for the Wogan skill, 30,000 people were said to have applied for a seat in the audience, gazing at his mastery.

"I’ve always said that I hope I’ll have enough sense to get off the beach before the tide comes", said Terry.  He did.  We'll miss him and we'll remember him.

Alan Dedicoat and Ken Bruce reflect in 'The World at One' on Radio 4 
Terry's last 2009 breakfast show in full, thank to Andy Walsmley

My book 'How to Make Great Radio' is published by Biteback

Thursday 21 January 2016

Congratulations, OC!

When Christian O’Connell began on breakfast across the UK, 86% of households didn’t have digital radio; the best-selling phone was a Nokia; and Mike Baldwin died.

Ten years on breakfast is quite a landmark on any radio station, not least one in the aggressive London and UK market.  

Congratulations, Christian. You’ve done a great job, growing from boy to man in the transition from rebellious Xfm to vigorous Virgin and Absolutely beyond.

His arrival in 2006 attracted acres of coverage. Mind you, the mighty One Golden Square press office has an enviable reputation of being able to conjure up coverage for the arrival of a pizza in reception.

Lovely Lynn at the Guardian, who'd presumably woken early to listen, observed:  I don't think he is the new Chris Evans - he is less frantic, less bullying, more likable, with a much drier sense of humour. And he is much less laddishly offensive than most of the other pop DJs.

Christian's time in the London limelight was preceded by an apprenticeship at 2CR in Bournemouth, and an early spell delivering ballads to the dying in the disinfected wards of a Hampshire hospital.

This man, habitually clad in his black leather jacket, is a pro. A single-minded, clever operator. Witnessing his art at the Arqiva awards was always an education. One’s peers are always the toughest audiences. He measured the mood; with the fun poked at the big boys not the little guys. 

On-air and off-air, a sharp performer with the skill to prep well and deliver as if he hadn’t. 
He's serious about being funny; willing to draw on his own life; and watches others with skill to harvest observational riches. He studies his influences with diligence; and, unlike some other great performers, knows just how he does what he does.

Christian pulls off deadpan on radio - alongside sounding as chirpy as one needs breakfast jocks to.  A grown up 'lad' on a male station with easy female likeability. He boasts pure comic timing and - well - the sort of face that does funny well with eyes and mouth telling different stories. 

The broadcaster manages his managers excellently, and is commercially astute, helping the station and himself earn the money they deserve; a skill which likely owes something to a first-hand experience of what hard sales is all about. And good luck to him. 

His efforts have spun off into TV and, on radio, he's heard on 5 Live too. The book he penned, 'The Men Commandments', appears still to be at full price on Amazon, which is always a good sign, and his stand-up tour is very much still standing. His appearance at last year's Radio Festival was a mouth-watering appetiser.

I worked alongside Christian for an all too brief period in 2007-08. He's good to deal with, and able to detach the person from the performance for the sake of programme analysis. Hungry for anything at all which might help tomorrow’s show get better; and pretty impatient if it doesn't.

Congratulations, OC. Have a good show, Sir. Radio is proud of you.

My book 'How to Make Great Radio is out now, proceeds to the Radio Academy

Friday 8 January 2016

Our Dennis

If you don’t live near Nottinghamshire, you may not have heard too much about him. That’s probably the point.

Dennis McCarthy MBE belonged purely to the city he came to call his own.  That’s why the streets were lined for his funeral route twenty years ago – and why he remains so fondly remembered to this day.

Dennis joined BBC Radio Nottingham shortly after it launched in 1968, persuading his way through the York House door by brandishing some promising material about dogs.

His weekly Sunday show - purring out of large VHF sets on 94.8 or Rediffusion Channel C - was to become compulsive listening; echoing round every terrace in St Ann’s and every boulevard in Bridgford.

Dennis's quiet conversation truly engaged; delivered in a natural voice of real depth, warmth and quality. Although his rich tones did not resemble those of his community, he understood his people perfectly and became a true companion to this proud manufacturing city as it prepared itself for demolition and reinvention.

The weekend show comprised an array of ostensibly dull features, turned into magic in the hands of a master. Every ‘Swap Shop’ caller was played to huge advantage as they offered a storage radiator or some ‘hard core’ to be collected from Sneinton. Dennis’s dead-pan delivery and comic timing was a true art.

‘Wanted Column of the Air’ was another classified feature where Dennis helped listeners' quests and turned them into entertainment.  Never ridiculing, he conducted parallel simultaneous dialogues with listener and caller. 

'Giveaway' became an excuse for an amusing faux-harrumphing exchange about why the listener didn't want the offending item any more. 

When a listener he'd dialled up failed to answer the qualifying question for 'Family Jackpot', he'd still instinctively exploit any latent opportunity: "Are you having mint sauce?".

On one occasion, however, the recipient of such a call explained she'd just been bereaved. In the hands of any lesser broadcaster, the moment would have been far from the compassionate, dramatic radio that ensued.

When the occasion warranted, Dennis could just as easily slip into a quality current affairs or personality interview. On local matters, from the arrival of one-man buses to the closure of Victoria Market's mushy peas stall, he felt the City's heartbeat

The McCarthy contribution was extended to a regular daily show, 'Afternoon Special', in 1974, which was later to be networked across the East Midlands by 1980. This programme featured ‘Where are You Now?’, where listeners tracked down those they cared about so much that they’d lost touch. Dennis used it as a cunning vehicle for local anchoring: "Wasn't that the pub on Derby Road?".

In those contesting days, we’d be treated to prizes such as, and I quote, a “£15 shopping spree on Arnold Market" – or a 45 rpm record. The unwritten rule was that winners of the 45s should generously refuse them and say "give it the ‘Ospital, Dennis". I suspect Nottingham’s QMC was actually built on a foundation of obscure vinyl freebies.

Dennis broke the rules. His programme often included deliberate gaps you could drive an NCT bus through. If a caller said she'd seen an unusual bird at the bottom of her garden, he'd ask her to go to see if it was still there. You'd hear the click of the latch on her door - and await her return. Dennis felt under no obligation to say anything, often for minutes. It was strangely riveting. 

This great communicator is recalled now, not through Tram 214 which bears his name, but for specific memorable moments of radio.

The shows were huge, dominating East Midlands’ listening. In later years, by which time I was working in radio, a plan was half-hatched to persuade Dennis to leave the BBC and launch ‘Radio Dennis’ on Trent’s AM frequency which it was hurriedly re-purposing.

He is still recalled as frequently as he was a decade ago. On Paul Robey's excellent Sunday show, heir to the McCarthy throne, listeners will voluntarily cite Dennis, just as they'd talk about an old friend. He was a listener's presenter, not an anorak's. Humbly little material is to be found on-line about the perfect performance of this gentlemen - who chose to complete his programme, on feeling ill, before passing away at home later the same day, aged 63.

I shall leave others who knew him personally to reflect on the man inside this hugely-gifted, dog-loving, washing machine and tripe salesman who'd been evacuated to Nottingham aged eight; and who'd appeared in a couple of films, including 'One of our Aircraft is Missing' two years before he'd left London. Most inspired broadcasters are complex characters, yet forgiven in equal quantity. I was but a loyal listener in my radio shed at the bottom of the garden.  

I did meet him twice, though – the first time as I claimed my prize in a car-theft jingle contest he'd staged on his programme in conjunction with the Notts’ bobbies.  I was the runner-up, by the way, but bear no malice to the winner. I hope my rival’s been happy in life.

On the second occasion, Dennis turned up in his brown suit to open a British Legion coffee morning. He showed his face at a lot of events – a lesson for anyone seeking to own their market.  On this occasion, he’d been invited by my mother. As the picture suggests, my wonderful 'Hyacinth' mum had no intention of playing second fiddle to the invited star. But, again, he played her like a caller.

Dennis's family became our family, as his children, Tara and 'Digger' 'The World's Youngest DJ', played their part in the show.

His is a rare talent. Dennis was the sort of personality on which BBC local radio was built. Steeped in his area, a broadcaster who understood his audience and spoke to them on a level. 

'Our Dennis' numbers among the greats. Over the years, there have been others of his ilk across the BBC local network, each hugely valued by their audiences. Sometimes more so than by their management. 

Looking through the BBC Yearbooks over the years, his contribution merits a single, lonely mention - in the edition for the year he died. Just maybe the BBC of today should vow to take more care in identifying these great communicators, give them the environment to do their best work - and then celebrate them.

How many of today's broadcasters will be spoken about by their listeners twenty years on?

Enjoy a full hour-long tribute to Dennis, with contributions from family and colleagues

Thanks to Owen McCarthy (Digger) and former colleagues for their co-operation and contributions.

Grab a copy of my book 'How to Make Great Radio' now, from Amazon. Proceeds to the Radio Academy.

Sunday 3 January 2016

Five years of Capital UK

The Capital network launched five years ago - on 3rd January 2011, bringing together the eponymous London station with a clutch of heritage 'Hit Music' and Galaxy stations across the UK, reaching 7.1m listeners. 

Its UK audience has subsequently stood up well over the period - in what can be a worrying radio demographic. Taking the brand offshoots into account, listenership has grown.

London ad agencies love the network's simplicity and I can only guess at the sudden impact on national Galaxy revenues. Having managed half of that non-London brand for a few years, it was always a frustration when, despite best efforts, its revenue yield failed to live up to its audience stature.

Whilst the previous brand-names are regarded with huge, huge affection by many, including me, the logic for the strategic move was clear. Assembling stations in targeted brand clusters where they could fight powerfully for ad revenue and market themselves effectively against both powerful UK-wide BBC competition and rival media. Without at least some attractive and powerful national brands amongst the industry offering, I would have feared for the long-term future for commercial radio.

Had the commercial radio industry launched in the 70s with some national mainstream brands, and an icing of sustainable locals, life would have been altogether simpler. And if the commercial industry itself had been launched a few decades earlier, that would have been better still. It's true too that some executives in the early commercial radio industry fought persuasively - and perhaps wrongly - for continued local FM expansion rather a national counterpart.

With only one national commercial FM network available, and that devoted to a classical format, there was no other option than to bundle together existing FM frequencies. The re-branding was discharged boldly and efficiently on-air, and accompanied by what is widely recognised as one of the best ever TV ads for radio. In an ever more competitive world, its target audience loves it, just as I loved its predecessors when I was their age.

Enjoy here a medley of the well-co-ordinated opening moments across the UK.

At the end, enjoy Hirsty's Daily Dose, on the huge 1m+ audience station in Yorkshire.

Hirsty closes her opening link with the words 'this, for the very first time, is Capital FM'. Save for the 'FM', she had recreated the first words on London's Capital in 1973. just as Moyles repeated Radio 1's first words when he arrived on the breakfast show at last. I am not a fan of incestuous 'in' talk on-air - but both these two asides are clever enough to be lost on the many and treasured, with a fond smile, by the few.

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